As I shuttled between Bangalore and San Francisco in 2010

I saved this tweet from Nitin Pai (chief honcho and writer at The Indian National Interest) sometime in the first half of 2010. The operative phrase is “ought to”. The sad reality is that for most people (and I include myself in this category), the dominant emotions are sadness, guilt and frustration. Where’s the fury at the indifferent Indian state one might ask? There’s such a massive gap between the expectations of the Indian citizen and the reality of the Indian state that the daily sight of small kids doesn’t register on the fury meter. The guilt and frustration arises from the fact that besides doling small change, one seemingly cannot (or will not) do anything which has the potential to get begging kids off the streets.

Which brings us to the question our 4 year old asked sometime back – “why do we give biscuits/money to some beggars and not to others?”

How could we answer that the reasons were mostly arbitrary — wallet devoid of low denomination currency, mind preoccupied etc. Or that this minuscule dole was so inconsequential that it served more as a balm to our guilty souls than making any meaningful difference to their pathetic lives. We yearned to say that in future years, we were contemplating doing something to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. With a deep sigh, I answered: “You asked a really good question. Let me think about it some more and and get back with a proper answer.” I’m hopeful that the completion of this blog post (after gestating in the Drafts folder for the past 10 months) signals that we are ready to answer his question.

As I shuttled between Bangalore and San Francisco in 2010, it struck me that, besides software, there was at least one other thing common between the two cities – homeless people. There’s no dearth of homeless people in most Indian cities and Bangalore is no exception. What one tends to forget is that San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, and many other American cities also suffer from this problem. The magnitude of the problem is different of course. While it needs to be stated that the problem of adult homeless people is very different (and relatively less troublesome if one deigns to compare), the attitude and reactions of the well-to-do-citizenry is pretty similar in both cases.

Still… San Francisco’s homelessness problem has always confounded me — especially during my 10 years living in the Bay Area. The Wikipedia article on San Francisco had the following interesting facts:

San Francisco ranks third of American cities in median household income with a 2007 value of $65,519. Median family income is $81,136, and San Francisco ranks 8th of major cities worldwide in the number of billionaires known to be living within city limits.

The city’s poverty rate is 11.8% and the number of families in poverty stands at 7.4%, both lower than the national average. The unemployment rate stands at 10.1% as of August 2009. Homelessness has been a chronic and controversial problem for San Francisco since the early 1980s. The city is believed to have the highest number of homeless inhabitants per capita of any major U.S. city.

Back in May 2010, I was in San Francisco for a week-long business trip. A lazy Sunday afternoon listening to Moonalice at Union Square seemed to provide a perfect start. I followed this up with a brisk walk, and spotting a Subway, hurried in to grab my usual favorite. As I contemplated the choice of bread, I heard a voice “I know folks don’t usually like to give money but could you buy me a sandwich?” A middle-aged homeless woman peered at me hopefully. After a two second pause, I nodded and indicated to the Subway employee. After I paid for her chicken-teriyaki and my veggie-delite sandwiches, I did what I normally do after these kind of encounters (in India or America) — beat a hasty retreat.

As I did more research on San Francisco’s homeless problem, I came across this rather encouraging article in WalletPop (key excerpts below)

In 2004, San Francisco launched an ambitious ten-year plan aimed at ending homelessness in the city by greatly expanding its social services and creating 3,000 permanent housing units as substitutes for shelters. Now at the six-year mark, San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, is claiming the city is more than halfway toward its goal, having thus far created almost 1,700 housing units. As a result, despite the recession, it’s managed to shrink its homeless population for the first time in 30 years.

Closer to home in Bangalore, here are a few sobering statistics gleaned from this Hindu article and this DNA article:

  • 17,000+ homeless people in Bangalore.
  • Per Supreme Court, there needs to be one homeless shelter for every lakh of people. For Bangalore’s 80 lakh population, this maps to 80 shelters.
  • Homeless women are exposed to regular sexual attacks and homeless men are at the mercy of goon and police atrocities.

My Road to Mumbai Marathon 2010

4 hrs 45 min 12 secs. That’s the total time I took to complete the regulation distance (42.195km) of Mumbai Marathon 2010. It was the 3rd full marathon I participated in & successfully completed. The time was 13 min shy from my personal best (Silicon Valley Marathon in 2002). I was 7 years younger, weather was near-perfect and the race organization was flawless so perhaps not an apples-to-apples comparison. Compared to my disastrous performance at the Kaveri Trail Marathon in Sep 2009, I suppose I did pretty well in shaving 30min. But is this the right way to evaluate my ‘performance’? Is running marathons merely about constantly exceeding your PB (personal best) times? No and no.

2009 was the year where I clocked the most running miles ever in my life – 1100 kilometers. During the last 5 months of 2009, my Garmin Forerunner 305 and RunningAhead tell me that I ran 740 km. Mikc Clothier (my 1st marathon coach) would have been proud with the way I stuck to my running plan. Sure – I could have added interval running and weight training to my regimen but heck.. I’m not claiming perfect preparation. In the end, I’d rate my preparation for SCMM2010 a solid B(+). The reason I didn’t give myself an A(-) is because of the final (taper) week.

The final 2 weeks before race day (aka “taper”) are arguably more important than the prior 2-3 months where runners cram in progressively higher weekly miles. The taper weeks are all about allowing the body to recover from the series of weekend long runs, drastically reduce the number and duration of the scheduled runs, stick to a well-accustomed-to-body diet, take extra care in hydration, and tuck in a LOT of hours of sleep. It’s almost akin to fattening the pig before the slaughter. In fact, most runners gain some weight during the taper weeks making them feel distinctly uncomfortable and anxious.

While there’s no mention in marathon training manuals about trans-atlantic business trips and falling sick, it’s safe to assume that they are clear NO-NO’s during the final 2 taper weeks. Alas! Fate dealt me a tough set of cards when a business trip got scheduled in the final week. 3 days in Las Vegas and 4 days in San Francisco would get me to Mumbai in the wee hours of 16th morning – approximately 27 hours before the race start. A different person may have weighed the odds and concluded that there was too much risk in attempting to run on 17th morning. But I’m a delayed binding kinda-guy so I didn’t abort plans to be in Mumbai on marathon weekend.

Week before race day

Las Vegas is my least favorite American city. Too flashy & artificial for my liking and, most importantly, after you get accustomed to a decade of mostly smoking-free public areas in Northern California, it feels suffocating here. Anyway, I wasn’t here for sightseeing. I had come to attend several business meetings and check out the latest technology trends at CES 2010. By the morning of Jan 10, I was back in familiar territory — San Francisco. I needed to run the final 16k taper run so changed into my running gear shortly after I reached the hotel. At 11am, it was still quite foggy and the air was nippy so I dashed back to my room and put on an extra layer. Since I’d stayed at this hotel during my previous two trips, the running route was already figured out. Headed down Nob Hill towards Embarcadero, then turned right at the water front and keep running for 8k which took me past the ball park — I turned around the Cirque de Soleil encampment. I didn’t have any target pace for this taper run so I started fast, then gradually slowed and finished 16k at a 6:02 min/km average which, coincidentally, was my target pace for Mumbai. The 2km steep climb back to the top of Nob Hill was satisfying (I was thankful for wearing that extra layer). The rest of the day passed uneventfully with no grim foreboding of the week ahead.

Sometime on Monday evening, I developed an itchy feeling in the throat which gradually turned into a mild sore throat. No panic yet! Increased my fluid consumption significantly (juices, tea, even the ghastly chamomile kind which I normally avoid). Started gargling every few hours also. I’m usually not renowned for such proactive measures but this was a special week after all. Tuesday morning rolled around and mild coughing had begun and the sore throat had gotten worse. Still no sign of a cold and that gave me a great deal of hope. The hope started getting dashed by Tuesday evening when my voice went nasal. I spent Tuesday & Wednesday evenings at my sister’s place in Cupertino and she plied me with liberal and regular doses of miriyala kashayam (the family’s age-old answer to stop the common cold in its tracks). On Wednesday evening, I headed to Santana Row in San Jose for dinner with buddies/classmates from BIT Mesra. On the way out, I dashed off a quick pessimistic email to my marathon training buddies — something on the lines of my prospects of running at Mumbai are looking bleak. The food and conversation at Maggiano’s was excellent and, after hearing me complain about my throat, my friends suggested a cognac would do a world of good. Since I’d sworn off spirits since Aug ’08, I hesitated a bit but then acquiesced because… after all it was a special week and I needed a multi-pronged strategy to quell the barbaric germs. I returned to my sister’s place with a fresh dose of good vibes, downed more miriyala kashayam, and read some very encouraging emails from Shantanu and Meher. Game still on! I woke up Thursday morning feeling quite rested but with a finely progressed cold. Realized belatedly that my biggest blunder during the final taper week was that, far from increasing my sleep average, I had reduced it to a measly 5 hrs.

24 hours before race start

Under normal conditions, I use Afrin (a nasal spray) a few hours before the plane starts the descent and it almost always works. When I have a cold, all bets are off. Both the descents (to Frankfurt Airport & Mumbai Airport) were highly painful experiences where I felt my brains would explode through my ears. As I waited at the baggage claim area, dazed and confused (but no longer in pain) is how I’d describe my condition. Got into a prepaid taxi and woke up my dear friend Dheeraj (it was ~ 3am) who gave directions and I reached his Powai flat by 4am. Slept for 7 uninterrupted hours, skipped breakfast and had a delicious early lunch with the Vasishths. Then took stock of my situation.

  • Cold: much better but needed periodic bouts of nose blowing.
  • Throat: still sore but vastly improved.
  • Cough: still nagging though subdued. The cough syrup I had picked up from Rite-Aid (DelSym) was a complete dud. Damn! why didn’t I pick up the tried & tested Benedryl?

Dheeraj (my dear friend from Bokaro Xaviers days) examined me with a bemused look. The top question on everyone’s minds (including me) was whether I would run tomorrow. Maybe he saw my determined & stubborn look and thus decided not to lead with “Are you NUTS to even think about running?” We were discussing whether I should see a doctor. I was cagey since it would be a tad bit inconvenient if the doctor were to ‘strongly recommend’ that I not run. D convinced me that it was an excellent idea (I think he was afraid that my wife would come after him if something bad were to happen to me). So off we went to the nearby doctor’s office. A very quick examination by the lady doctor (who was also accompanied by her 5 year old son – since it was a Saturday et al you know) and the verdict was “bacterial infection”. Not really a surprise but I asked her if I could start the antibiotics course the next day (after the marathon). Her reaction was the biggest surprise. She said “by all means, run the marathon. You just have an infection, a cold and a lingering cough. You run the marathon with your legs, right?” She said I must have 2 doses of antibiotics, cough syrup as needed, and for good measure, she threw in a Paracetamol to be taken at night so I’d wake up ‘fresh’. Oh yeah, lady! My kinda doctor! You can imagine what this doctor’s visit did to my spirits.

Watched a bit of the India vs. Bangladesh cricket match, had an animated discussion on religion, spirituality and atheism with D and C (D’s wife). It was the second time I was hearing “Once you finish reading Richard Dawkins, you will become an atheist”. A paperback edition of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” traveled back to Bangalore with me (courtesy D). Who said atheists aren’t evangelists? 🙂

Early sumptuous dinner with D & C and I hit the bed at 9:30pm. Tossed and turned… 1 hour later.. tossed and turned…1 hour later… finally slept.

Race day morning

I had kept alarms for 5 different times but woke up at the first beep itself. Nervous energy – can you tell? Took a cab to Ghatkopar station at 5am. The place was bustling like a Sunday marketplace. Rupees 7 ticket to VT station in 2nd class – can you believe that? There still are some things in India that have defied inflation! The train was full but managed to find a seat. Spotted several fellow runners including a large group of half-marathon runners that got off at Dadar station. Reached VT by 5:45am and gradually met up with most of the Bangalore runners in front of the baggage counter in Azad Maidan. The most important person I met before race start was Shantanu — who had picked up my bib and timing chip the previous day (thanks again Shantanu! you saved me 2-3 valuable hours on Saturday). The usual banter and nervous anticipation as the race start time of 6:45am slowly approached.

Considering how wordy this post has already gotten (and how long it took to get this far), I’ll finish the highlights of my actual running in a subsequent post.

(Feb 14 Update: race day ‘report’ covered in Running the Course – Mumbai Marathon 2010)

When something’s not easy to do, you are doing it wrong

Pic: courtesy Bing Images

It was early days for me at the University of Houston campus in the Fall of 1992. One of my initial starry-eyed memories was that of purchasing my first Coke can from a vending machine on my way back to the Cambridge Oaks apartment. This was my first-ever encounter with a Coke can (for that matter any soft drink can). I examined it as one would a hard-earned trophy. It was chilled to the perfect temperature, the bright red Coke colors and the calligraphic lettering epitomized to me excellence, beauty and perfection — all things I associated with the American Dream that I was here to pursue. And I had just bought it for 60 cents. It was thrilling.

At this point, most normal people would have pushed the tab open and started glugging away. For some odd reason (daftness perhaps?), I decided that one had to twist/rotate the tab (step #1) and then pull the tab (step #2). Not surprisingly, after I had executed step #2, I was left holding a detached tab and a (still unopened) Coke can and feeling rather silly. I hurried my way back back to the apartment with a mixture of how_could_I_be_so_dumb and a steely resolve to make amends. Later in the kitchen, a few deliberate pokes with a screwdriver yielded results and I was soon slaking my Coke thirst. This was incident #1.

Incident #2 involved the American matchbook – which is quite different from its Indian counterpart (which we call “match box” or “matches”). For the benefit of my Indian readers, let me describe the American matchbook – 2 rows of soft matchsticks are fused inside a thin cardboard flap, there’s only striking surface which is on the outer side of the flap. In case you are wondering, I’ve been a smoker for a grand total of 3 1/2 years – the latter 2 years were during my 1992-94 Houston stint. My roommate (another smoker from India) and I used the matchbook like an Indian matchbox – i.e. tear off the soft stick, and strike it against the striking surface. After a few days of low hit-rate match-strikes, we concluded that the Americans didn’t know how to manufacture matchbooks. Along comes Beaumont-Srini (a senior in Business school) who  showed us the correct way of using the American matchbook — twist the flap around to almost touch the striking surface and simply pull out the match between the striking surface and the flap. Voila! (Friction + chemistry = fire).

As I reflected on these 2 incidents, our mutual good friend, philosopher, guide and senior – Soumya (of Soumya.org fame) had this pithy summary about life in America: when something’s  not easy to do, you are doing it wrong. Over the years, this served as a reliable guiding litmus test. When I found myself waiting for hours at the DMV, turns out I could have called a toll free number to book an appointment instead. Years later, when I kept getting placed on hold on that toll free DMV number, turns out I could have booked my appointment (via the web) in less than a minute.

Now let’s look at India. The same pithy litmus test can be applied here – you just have to flip it on its head: when something’s looking very easy, you are probably doing it the wrong way. If you got your driver’s license in a single afternoon, chances are you bribed the RTO officer or utilized the services of a driving school agent. If you bought the latest video game or the newest Bollywood release from a footpath vendor as you were lounging down Indiranagar’s 100-feet road or Koramangala’s 80-feet road, they were definitely pirated (and you knew it!). If it’s taking you fifteen visits to the Corporation office to register your recently purchased property and you still don’t know when it will finally be registered, you (my friend) are doing it the right way!

If you found my description of the American matchbook to be inadequate, here are some visuals via Google Images: click here

A year in Bangalore – the unwritten blog posts

Pic: courtesy elbo.ws

We hit our ‘one year anniversary in India’ on India’s Independence Day – Aug 15, 2009. A few months ago, we toyed with the idea of throwing a party and invite all our friends (old and new). The unrelenting pressures of work and the weekly ‘rhythm of the kids’ school and after-school activities meant we would alter our plans. ’twas all for the good anyway. It was more appropriate to celebrate the anniversary as a quiet Thanksgiving-style dinner with family than a raucous party.

I did tweet about it though (and gave ourselves a B+ grade) – and our global social graph responded enthusiastically. There’s much to write about our experience but here are a few top reasons why we are rating our ‘move to India’ a solid B+ (knock-on wood for each bullet point):

  • Fortunate enough that none of us (especially the kids) have fallen seriously ill
  • Children getting sensitized to the global issues of haves and have-nots
  • Adapted to the local environment and enjoying the spectrum of people and experiences
  • Kids are well-settled at their new school – NPS Koramangala
  • My job at Adobe has been every bit as exciting and rewarding as I had hoped a year ago
  • We met my parents thrice and my brother five times in the past year, not to mention the increased ‘calling-to-Vijayawada’ frequency thanks to the same timezone
  • Met and made friends with many wonderful folks at Raheja Residency
  • Asthma hasn’t reared its ugly head so far.. (Read Asthma, Bangalore and me for background)
  • Becoming a regular part of the Cubbon Park Irregulars (a rabid group of enthusiastic group of long distance runners) has meant that I ran my first half-marathon in Jan 2009 and very likely will run my second marathon next weekend at Kaveri Trail Marathon
  • Graduated from a chauffeur-driven car to self-driven car at the 7-month mark

The challenge a part-time blogger always faces is time – rather the lack thereof. The list of unwritten blogs continues to balloon every month. Partly to reduce my guilt at disappointing my small but loyal base of readers and partly to get feedback on which topics might be of more interest, here’s the complete list (in no particular order):

  • Bangalore Calling: This was meant to be the sequel to The Bombay Seduction and Gurgaon Growling but this post was threatening to eternally remain in the “Draft” folder. As a stop-gap, I pasted a relevant conversation with a New Jersey-based Indian-American contemplating a return
  • The Indian Woman’s Dilemna: Someday this post will be written by my wife. The thesis is that an Indian woman has a LOT more freedom in America than in her own native country. How then does she reconcile the pros and cons in her head in order to arrive at the decision to return to India?
  • Raheja ‘Monkey-Haven’ Residency: When I informed my Bangalore-native classmate & friend (who lives in the Bay Area) about our new coordinates in Koramangala, he remarked, in a disappointed tone I might add, “But that’s a fairly mainstream choice” (He’d have approved if we had taken residence at the Adarsh Palm Meadows.) Anyway, the demographic profile of Raheja, its vibrant community and its killer location made it an easy choice for us. One of the many fringe benefits of living in Raheja: hardly a week goes by without sighting a pack of monkeys scaling the walls of the buildings foraging for food.
  • Of high rises and balconies: You may not realize it but high rise apartment buildings and their numerous balconies are perilous to kids (and to parents with weak hearts). Our own apartment hunt had to rebooted after our 3 year old demonstrated that the 5th floor balcony is eminently climbable (we still shudder thinking back to that scene).
  • Vishnu’s Best Devotee: This has nothing to do with our move but I had an epiphany on work-life balance as I recollected one of Narada’s tales.
  • Crowd-sourcing the traffic light: I could possibly write 3-4 different posts on Indian road traffic but this is the one I really want to. The unmanned Indian traffic intersection is a fascinating and efficient system. Unmanned intersection and efficient? (you snort) In much the same way that the Mumbai dabbawalas have demonstrated their world-class efficiency, crowd-sourcing the traffic light (which is how I’ve dubbed the unmanned traffic intersection) is simply brilliant for Indian traffic conditions.
  • The Staring Gene: Why do Indians stare so much? I’m not talking about Indian kids nor am I talking about Indians gawking at foreign tourists or celebrities – these are somewhat understandable. I’m talking about Indians staring at Indians…
  • Midnight Marathon to Kaveri Trail Marathon: This is a tribute post to my Runners for Life and Cubbon Park Irregulars friends who’re transforming me from a hobbyist occasionally-goal-directed runner to a semi-pro obsessive runner.
  • Do not urinate here: Saw this painted on a wall in Warangal (or was it Hyderabad?) The location doesn’t really matter because there are very few walls that are sacred in India (even those that are close to temples). Why is that we are not seeing the number of Sulabh Shauchalays increase in India? Why are restrooms an afterthought in most commercial buildings? When they do exist, why are soaps noticeable by their absence? Is it a wonder that infectious diseases continue to have a field day in India?
  • Excellent products, Poor Services: The former are driven by market economy, the latter due to unchanged mindset? My wife and I slightly disagree on the latter. I hold the hope that the market can drive higher level of service and competitors would be forced to catch-up but my wife thinks the attitudes are too deep-seated.
  • Living in the Present: [essay from wife]
  • Well-rounded education: [essay from wife]
  • The Three Bubbles Revisited: An expansion on the original The Three Bubbles post – whether it’s my friend Pranshu (who goes offroading every weekend in Gurgaon) or the guy in Mumbai (who goes mountain-biking) or me reconnecting with my inner-running-self and looking-forward to resuming my squash routine, there are additional ways of enriching the ‘living bubble’.
  • What I miss about California
  • Close encounters of the bribing kind: Two encounters so far and I passed with flying colors.
  • What I don’t like about India: inspired by a recent Starbucks chat with a friend who mildly accused me of  writing only positive things about our move. Not true my friend. You should read my tweets more carefully 🙂
  • (No) Thank You Maids: [essay from wife] Cheap labor, poor performance, excellent excuse for the Indianization of the Indian-American male.
  • Desperate Lives: Whether it’s the maid or the driver or the handyman or the kackra-wala, they are all living incredibly difficult and desperate lives to make ends meet.
  • Educating Boys: [essay from wife] School + sports = incomplete; Home + school + sports = complete. Her thesis is that the top reason why more Indian women are not able to join the workforce is because the men are incapable of managing the household.
  • Global Identity: [essay from wife] 1992 -> Indian looks, American thinking, Indian feelings; 2009 -> Indian looks, American thinking, Indian-American feelings (hypersensitive vs. tempered)
  • Piracy in DVD rentals
  • Sequel to The Janus Man

Any of the above topics sound interesting to you? If yes, please vote for your favorite(s) in the comments.

Thanks!

ABIDe promotes convenient Volvo transport

Pic: courtesy sumanbhat.wordpress.com

I first met Sanjay Anandaram (serial entrepreneur turned venture capitalist) during the Dec 2008 Jethro Tull concert. We connected on the intellectual level and had some interesting conversations as we drove in Tridib’s car to Palace Grounds. Sanjay lives in Raheja and, while we haven’t met again in person, occasionally sends useful social & civic related emails. A few days ago, he sent this message about ABIDe (Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure & Development) exhorting Bengaluru residents to start using the newly commissioned and expanded Volvo public bus service using a corridor approach. Read on.

—- begin email —-

Dear Friends,

As you are aware, ABIDe (Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure & Development) Task Force, with the Chief Minister as Chairman, Mr. Ananth Kumar (MP-Bangalore South) as Vice Chairman and Mr. Rajeev Chandrashekar (MP – Rajya Sabha) as Convener, has been constituted to revive and rebuild Bengaluru through a combination of Comprehensive planning, improved municipal services and new investments into infrastructure. ABIDe also owns the task of providing a blue-print for sustainable and orderly development of Bangalore under Bengaluru Vision 2020.

 

I and Ashwin Mahesh (IIM-B), are entrusted with the task of suggesting solutions to the Traffic and Transport issues of Bangalore – A tough job indeed :). Please visit http://abidebengaluru.in/report/show/7 to read and give suggestions on our recommendations.

The Transportation team at ABIDe has identified public transport as the most important tool in reducing traffic congestion and chaos on Bangalore roads. Given that metro rail network is still some years away, Bus based public transport system is being promoted with a corridor approach.

To promote public transport and make travel hassle free, 10 major arterial roads (Big-10) have been identified as high density traffic corridors which will be made junction/signal free with dedicated point-to-point Bus Services, both A/C and non-A/C buses, named as Big-10 service.

Priority Bus Lanes, Bus Bays, Paved Footpaths, Safe Pedestrian Crossings, Cycle Lanes (proposed) will also be introduced on these Big-10 routes. We have 3, 6, 12, 18 and 24 month deadlines to accomplish all these Road Infrastructure Improvement objectives on all Big-10 Corridors. Please visit ABIDe website for corridor and other details. – http://www.abidebengaluru.in

However, deployment of Big-10 and Hop-on Hop-Off (HoHo) Bus Services has already begun.

Out of 10 Corridors Big-10 Bus Service is already in operation on Hosur Road (Vellara Jn – Electronic City) and HAL Airport Road (Trinity Jn – Whitefield-Hope Farm jn). This is proving to be extremely popular. Next week Bannerghatta Road Big-10 Service will start. In next 2 months all 10 Corridors will have Big-10 Bus Service with a frequency of 5-10 minutes, both A/C and Non-A/C Service.

This service CONVENIENTLY connects with Central Business District (CBD) HoHo Service (Kendra Sarige) at Vellara Jn on Hosur Rd and Trinity Jn on HAL Airport rd respectively. This makes it extremely convenient for anyone living and commuting on these routes to use this Big-10 Service in conjunction with CBD HoHo service to reach any point in the city including all shopping malls and offices, without the need to take their private vehicles to work or shop.

I have myself used these services and they are extremely convenient and efficient.

Please encourage all your friends and colleagues to use these BUS services. Traffic congestion will reduce only if we stop/reduce taking our cars to work and shop.
No amount of cribbing or road widening is going to help if we keep adding private cars to our roads. Now we have the comfortable and convenient public transport in close proximity to our homes and work places, lets use it and help our city and the environment.

PS: Please send this e-mail to your friends and colleagues with suitable modifications as you deem fit. We need to popularize public transport through media, blogs, personal contacts and word of mouth, to save Bangalore from traffic chaos.

—— end email —–

100 Days in Bangalore (Part 2)

Continued from 100 Days in Bangalore (Part 1)

If you’ve read Why we are moving back to India or Brother or Best Friend, you know that one of the big reasons for moving to India was to spend more time with the family. My parents’ two-week visit in October provided the first treat on that front. Li’l A was meeting his grandparents for the first time but it only took him a few hours to ‘bond’ – for the next two weeks the grandparents were twirling to his tune. An unexpected bonus during my parents’ visit was that my brother also made a business trip to Bangalore and spent a few evenings with us. He also made another business trip in November when we spent some quality time together. I’m completing this post from my parents’ flat in Vijayawada where we’re spending our Christmas + New Years holidays. I can’t recall the last time we’ve had such an enjoyable, relaxing and satisfying family vacation.

Health Check: Ever since our decision to move to India (and specifically to Bangalore), asthma has been like the proverbial Sword of Damocles.  I had struck an optimistic note in Asthma, Bangalore and me… but deep in my heart I feared it was more a case of when rather than if I would be afflicted with asthma again. I’m relieved to report that four months after moving to Bangalore, I’ve managed to remain asthma-free. Sure – I’ve been running a few miles twice weekly (on most weeks) and avoiding the traffic pollution diligently but I still consider myself fortunate so far. All else pales into insignificance — a few episodes of cold, cough & throat infection and a particularly nasty case of mouth ulcers (which lasted a whole month). The rest of the family has also had a relatively decent health report in the past four months. Li’l A had a minor ear infection, one throat infection and several bouts of cold & cough. S also had a few bouts of cold and cough but nothing serious.

Friends in Bangalore:  What’s life without friends, eh? We landed in Bangalore comforted with the knowledge that many of our friends were already Bangalore residents. Our friends spanned the whole gamut of our different location circles – friends from Bokaro Xaviers, Vizag Timpany School, BIT Ranchi classmates, Jamshedpur TISCO colleagues, Houston, Chicago, SF Bay Area, ex-Yahoos. I even discovered an old squash partner from Decathlon Club, Santa Clara who relocated to Bangalore 6 years ago. I threw a surprise birthday party for P on the second weekend and managed to get our group of friends from Vizag/Bokaro/Bay Area for the surprise. We met with Rajnish and Meena (friends from Vizag) during Diwali. Our most regular interactions have been with Raheja Residency neighbours Gayatri and Srinath – since they moved from Bay Area same time as us, we are always comparing notes. We also met up with Mekin (fellow ex-Yahoo) and his wife (Raheja residents), Jagan (another Yahoo-Bay Area colleague who transferred to the Bangalore office), and Anirban (BIT classmate who moved to Bangalore in 2002). It’s not an exaggeration to say that every month I’m discovering yet another friend in Bangalore.

Friends from America: During our Farewell USA Road Trip, our midwest and east coast friends predicted that they’d see us more often in Bangalore than if we had remained in Bay Area. If the last 4 months are any indication, their prediction is right-on. Our friend from Dallas (Nanda) was in Hyderabad for a month to teach a course at ISB – he visited our place for a weekend and we had a mini-Bokaro reunion. Then there was Sanjeev (our friend from Palo Alto, California) who was in Bangalore for a business trip – he spent an evening with us. Amit (my BIT classmate & Yahoo colleague) came to spend time with his parents in Indiranagar and we met for lunch. Met with Venky (another Bay Area friend & Yahoo-colleague) at his parents’ house in Basavanagudi in Nov. Murali (our friend from Chicago) was in Bangalore for a business+personal trip and we spent an evening together. In early December, we spent several evenings together with our New Jersey friends (Subrata & Sujata) during their Bangalore visit. Since Subrata’s parents live in the same Raheja Residency apartment block as us, it was extra convenient too.

Eating Places: We certainly expected a superior culinary experience in Bangalore and so far we’ve not been disappointed. Here are some of the places that made an impression:

  • MTR: Our first family trip to this venerable Bangalore eatery was not an earth-shattering experience but the Diwali special MTR lunch at Adobe blew me away!
  • Sukh Sagar: A non-frills 100% vegetarian place with good idlis, dosas & sandwiches monopolized our dining during the initial Raheja weeks as our kitchen was still being established. We still visit this place occasionally.
  • More Than Parathas: If you like rich & yummy Punjabi food and snacks, you’ll love this place. First visit was with my work group. Resolved to return with the family in tow.
  • Mast Kalandar: 100% vegetarian restaurant chain started by a Wipro alumni couple. Food for P’s surprise party was catered from here. Lot of great parathas and paneer delicacies. Their shikhanji is awesome!
  • Bon South: A high-end South Indian fusion restaurant which we finally visited in early December. My mouth ulcers handicapped taste buds couldn’t fully appreciate it but P and the kids loved it. We are definitely returning – probably for a buffet this time.
  • Wisdom Lounge: Recommended by Mekin, this place has shot to the top of our ‘most favored dining destination’ list. A very quaint home-style restaurant with a lounge decor and excellent food (deserves a separate review).
  • Cafe Terra: Cute Italian/Thai/Indian cafe & restaurant owned and started by Ranjeet Ranade – another Bay Area Indian American who returned to Bangalore 3 years ago (more in a separate review).

Masti ki paathshala (for the First Grader Wannabe)

(Note: This started off as a school-centric post for both our 5.5 year old and the almost 3-year old but is now focused entirely on the former.)

We had seen Rang De Basanti earlier this year so the song Masti ki Paathshala was still fresh in my mind. Masti ki Paathshala (in Hindi) translates to School of Fun. Our goal was to find a school with the right balance between academic rigor and masti. When I made the 2-week trip to India in June, I was fortunate to meet a VC in Bangalore. This VC had moved back to India 3 years earlier and had done a thorough research of the Bangalore schools. He shared his perspective in a most useful way. He categorized the four major school boards (ICSE, CBSE, Karnataka State Board, and IGCSC) across two dimensions:

  • Emphasis on theory vs. practical education
  • Strictness of the teaching staff (e.g. “Very Strict” = rule by fear, “Mild” = American-style)

This is how he drew the table:

School Board % Theory Teaching Strictness
State Board 95% Very Strict
CBSE 70% Strict
ICSE 50% Mild-Strict
IGCSE 20% Mild

Most Indians are aware of the first three types of school boards. The last one was unfamiliar to me until we started planning our move to India in full earnest. IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education), started in 1988, is a two-year programme, spread over Class 9 and 10, and leads to the final examinations offered every year in May and November. It is conducted by two UK assessment bodies: Edexcel (also known as London Examinations) and Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). IGCSE is described as a balanced curriculum and a flexible course of study with an emphasis on practical approach to teaching and learning. This Rediff article provides a good primer on IGCSE.

Both P and I had attended ICSE schools and neither of us had any complaints about the ICSE board. What I recall is that there was always a healthy debate on whether CBSE or ICSE schools were better. I vaguely recall reading that CBSE school students did better in engineering college entrance examinations. I’ll confess that the State Board schools didn’t figure high in our calculations due to the following reasons: majority of our peer group are either ICSE or CBSE school alums, mandatory local language, and a high pedagogy coefficient.

In this post, I’m not attempting a comprehensive analysis of Bangalore schools. Bangalore Schools and Chitra Aiyer’s blog post (A list of good schools in Bangalore) are noteworthy sites on this front. Our perspective was biased by a small number of recommendations from our social graph. While some parents finalize the schools first (which automatically impose a certain residential zone), we picked Koramangala for the following reasons: its community, location convenience, and comfortable commuting distance. The clincher was that our top school picks were all within fighting distance from Koramangala:

  • National Public School (Koramangala & HSR Layout Branches)
  • Greenwood High School
  • Delhi Public School (DPS)
  • Bethany High School

The odds were stacked against us since we arrived in Bangalore a few months after the school year had started. You are already aware of our initial tryst with NPS (described in The curious case of the traveling chairman). They didn’t have any open slots for midyear admission but we applied for the next academic year. At the time of writing this post, we are awaiting news from both NPS Koramangala and NPS HSR Layout on whether they’d invite S for an admission test (in Jan and March respectively). Bethany also didn’t have any open slots for midyear admission but we had heard enough good things to keep on our list for next year. DPS, by virtue of being a solid national brand, was a strong contender but we didn’t try for midyear admission since we didn’t want S to have a long commute in the first year. Which brings us to the reasons why we ended up picking Greenwood High for S:

  • Several friends (including that VC friend) recommended it as a very good ‘soft landing’ for returning-from-America kids
  • While it’s a new school, the school administrators have a shared pedigree with the venerable Bethany
  • Curriculum, teaching style and facilities suggest an International bent with an emphasis on extra-curricular activities

The main criticism we heard about Greenwood was its high teacher turnover. We figured we’d keep an eye on that trend for the first year and take our chances. Our current thinking is to continue S at Greenwood High unless he gets admission into one of the NPS branches.

Bangalore Calling

Cubbon Park, Bangalore (circa 2009) – Pic courtesy thehindu.com

(Someday this post shall be completed. Until then, here’s a relevant comment thread between me and a New Jersey Indian American woman contemplating the move.)

Other posts related to the “Where in India” decision:

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Hi Vishy,
Great and interesting blog!! I am a 26 yr old married woman staying in NJ from last 2 years. My hubby works with an investment bank. We two are also seriously thinking of moving back to India and we definitely belong to “should-we” group..:)I read all your posts, sequentially, right from the first one and really felt surprised how simila we ppl think in terms of living in US and when talked about going back to India. We also are in the process of deciding upon the city to which we want to move. And we hav also selected Delhi/NCR, Bangalore, Mumbai as our options. Both of us belong to UP.
I have seen New York city and absolutely love its diverse and cosmopolitan crowd, the freedom in the air. And thats why I am more inclined to settle in Mumbai. When I was reading your post “The Bombay Seduction”, I felt its something special about Mumbai city that everybody who goes there falls in love with that..:)but later in your post found out that you are settled in Bangalore. Would you please tell me why you and Poonam made this decision? I understand its all the individual’s choice and the preferences but in the end of the post you showed your intent of living in Mumbai. Actually I am collecting all possible informations from my friends and different sources which can help us in making a right decision about the city, job etc while moving back to India. Your valuable experience might help us.
Once again would like to say I really liked your blog. You have put your thoughts and experiences in a very interesting manner. Would love to hear from you,
With Best Wishes,
PS

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Hi PS,
So glad you are finding the blog interesting & useful. There are 3 posts that I never completed:
Gurgaon Growling
Bangalore Calling
Why we chose Bangalore

I have a fond hope that during the Christmas holidays I’ll complete them (your comment is inspiration enough). Meanwhile here’s the short version of our decision:
1. Since we have 2 young kids, having sufficient “playing spaces” was a top criterion. This translated to “gated apartment communities” which were present in greater profusion (& affordability) in Bangalore than Mumbai.
2. Had we been contemplating this move 10 (or even 6) yrs ago – an era sans kids, Bombay might have trumped Bangalore.
3. New York is to Mumbai as Silcon Valley is to Bangalore. During our years in US, both Poonam & I longed to live in New York for a few years. The window of opportunity (we felt) was again in the pre-kids era so it passed.
4. I’m not saying a family with kids cannot live in Mumbai – it’s just that for a family with kids returning from US, Bangalore is a softer landing than Mumbai. In your case (assuming you don’t have kids yet), Mumbai sounds like a great fit, especially if you consider the fact that your hubby is an investment banker (for financial folks, Mumbai trumps Bangalore big time).
5. Finally, after spending 10 excellent yrs in Silicon Valley, the fact that Bangalore ethos was the closest to it clinched it for us. Will elaborate on this in the ‘Bangalore Calling’ post :)

Wish you the best in your moving plans. Hey – maybe you should start your blog? And keep the questions/comments coming..

Vishy

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Hi Vishy,

Thanks for your reply!! Many of the NRI people whom I have interacted with have chosen Bangalore to settle down while moving back to India. I wish to know the positive aspects about B’lore city- is it
1. plenty of job options
2. similar-to-US lifestyle
3. Pleasant Weather

However, I have heard from my age-group people that Bangalore has extremely high cost of living(high rents and real estate prices). And the road traffic is sickening and horrible over there.

If possible, pls share your views and experience (till date) about Bangalore and Mumbai city. I will be looking for a job in an IT co., so would like to explore whether Mumbai would have enough IT job opportunities. Also as you have moved very recently there, is the IT job market bad in India too? Is hiring taking place?

Looking forward to your next posts..:)
Happy Christmas and a great new year 2009!!
PS

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PS,
Yes to all three – plenty (read PLENTY) of job options – especially for techies, closest to SF Bay Area (& by corollary US) and best weather among all the leading metros. One cannot over-emphasize that aspect. There’s a reason Californians are happier than East-coasters (ok – I only have anecdotes as proof). I believe every Indian metro has one redeeming quality – in the case of Bangalore, #1 is the weather. For a techie, there’s also a strong #2 – abundance of job choices.

Yes – traffic sucks big time. Then again, with the exception of Delhi/NCR, other metros are no great shakes either. Mumbai traffic is quite lousy, Hyderabad’s traffic might get better faster than Bangalore’s.

Regarding IT jobs in Mumbai – sure there are a fair number of them but it doesn’t come close to Bangalore. If you are looking for a career in technology product development, Bangalore is a clear #1 (followed by Hyderabad, Chennai, and Gurgaon/Delhi – order depends on who you’d ask). If it’s IT in finance, Mumbai would be a really good bet.

The IT job market in India is not yet bad. However the operative word may be ‘yet’. Technology product & service companies are still hiring in 2009 but everyone’s really cautious. In this global meltdown state, it’s hard not to get affected.

Vishy

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100 Days in Bangalore (Part 1)

Vidhana Soudha (Pic: courtesy tripadvisor.com.sg)

I had planned to write this post sometime back – a retrospective kinda post providing a snapshot of the family’s settling down process – my job, kids schools, car, meeting friends, setting up the house, etc. On November 25, we completed 100 days in Bangalore but the next day all hell broke loose in Mumbai. Over the next 10 days, I read countless news articles, opinions, blog posts and spent an inordinate time on Twitter (#mumbai) hungrily and anxiously consuming every scrap of real-time news (& noise). Below is a sampling of some of the articles that made an impression on me:

Within the first 24 hours, I even wrote the post Nahin Chalta Hai with my reactions and 2 cents on the changes India needs to undertake. After a week I realized that it’s impossible for me (in my capacity of a part-time blogger) to remotely do justice to the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. So I decided to return to the blog’s original theme — which is to provide a flavor of an Indian family’s return to accustomed earth after spending 40% of our lives in America.

100 days completed in Bangalore — so what’s the mood at in the Kuruganti household? Pretty good, it turns out. Here’s a glimpse at the different facets of our settling down which encourage us that we may be on the right track…

Home  for ‘Hum do Hamare Do’: (Note to non-Indian readers, Hum do Hamare Do is an old 1970’s era family slogan that advocated an ideal family with 2 kids). After two weeks of frenetic apartment hunting in high-rise communities, we nearly came back to square one. We always knew our kids were a living testament to mankind’s close genetic proximity to Macaca fascicularis but seeing them scale balconies (granted they were just ‘attempts’) scared the bejeebies out of us. In the eleventh hour, we found a first floor apartment in Raheja Residency (note: Indian first floor = American second floor) that met all our needs. Great floor plan, redesigned and open kitchen, great landlords, and great Koramangala 3rd Block neighbourhood. Bangalore residents will know that Raheja is a venerable 10+ year old apartment community (turns out one of our close friends who lives in Fremont, California lived in this community on an expat assignment for  a year in ’97). We moved into the apartment on Sep 6 and thanks to P’s herculean efforts, the house’s livability was exponentially with each passing day. By mid-October, all the heavy furniture and related accouterments had been purchased and ‘interior decorated’ – we were ready to receive guests.

Cars, Driving & Traffic: In the first 4 weeks, we made our way around through a mixture of auto-rickshaws and taxis. The hunt for the family car was pretty easy. Our criteria were simple – avoid SUVs, minivans, and imported cars and a car just big enough to seat a family of 4 with a driver and squeeze in two adults (for my parents’ visits). Converging to the Maruti Suzuki SX4 was a simple matter after that. In parallel, I started the search for a reliable driver. Since we were not looking for a Man Friday, we found and hired Sunil pretty quickly. Timing was perfect since he started the day after we got our SX4. Someday I’ll write a post on Sunil but here is the short version on why I hired him: recommended by another driver, 3 years of driving experience, he ‘looked’ honest and hardworking, he’s only 22 years but his body language seemed to confirm the years of working experience he claimed. Two months after we hired him, Sunil has proved himself to be all that we hoped and some more – always prompt, reliable and has a ton of pride too (he doesn’t take largesse easily) – which is a rare trait for service professionals in India). Sure he’s not perfect – every once in a while he thinks he’s in a Formula 1 race (isn’t he a 22-year old after all?) but after we remind him firmly, he returns to his reliable moorings.

Yes – Bangalore traffic really sucks and we are so glad we have Sunil to mitigate that pain. Since I had every intention to drive, I swallowed my pride and enrolled in Santro Driving School. My first 5 driving lessons confirmed that it was a judicious decision indeed. I drove on American roads for 16 years but the last time I had driven on Indian roads (for a few months) was in sleepy Ukkunagaram (a suburb of Vizag) back in 1986. I also got myself a learner’s license and my Indian driving expertise is growing by leaps & bounds. In the first few weeks after I got my learner’s license, I would drive to work (with Sunil riding pillion). Gradually I started driving the family on Sundays (Sunil’s off day) and weekday evenings. According to P, I don’t honk enough – she’s right! there’s no such thing as honking too much on Indian roads. The primary reason to honk is to inform the car/motorcycle/pedestrian/dog “hello – I’m headed your way so watch out and adjust your trajectory”.

Kids, Schools & Diwali: The 5.5 year old and 2.9 year old are going to Greenwood High School and Little Feat Montessori respectively. Both our kids were accustomed to full-day of school so the 1/2 day schedule seemed inadequate. After a month of research, P found the perfect foil to their morning school routine –  Vivaa International. Touted to be the first Bangalore Montessori with a full-time daycare and started by two business women mothers (one of whom cut her Montessori teeth in America), the school (two storeys in a 3-storey house) with an outdoor play structure, inside wooden floors and overall clean interior inspired confidence. This is also the first time the two brothers are in the same school so they are having a blast. Two other Vivaa kids (twin boys incidentally) also live in the same Raheja block so S &A spend several playground hours with their friends at home too. We bought 2 matching blue BSA bicycles so cycling has been the #1 desirable activity. A’s bike turned out to be big for his current height so he’s happily sitting behind S’s bike (on the ‘carrier’) and enjoying the ride. S is definitely ready for the training wheels to come off. S also had a very fun-filled Sports day at the main campus of Greenwood High. His team won the 30-meter relay race (for which he got a gold medal) as well as the overall team prize. Not sure if S or his dad is more tickled by this.

Bangalore Book Festival: I’ve always loved book festivals and book sales so when I learned about the famous Bangalore Book Festival, we had to go — it was a small detail that the venue (Palace Grounds) was an hour away and we had 2 little ones to manage in a sea of humanity. The night before, I read this rather colorful review by a Bangalore-based poet/blogger. In the end, we lucked out because Soumya (my University of Houston classmate) was visiting and he decided to come along too – the “3 adults, 2 kids” odds helped our case. Mostly behaved myself at the book festival – picked up an RK Narayan, Tharoor’s Midnight to Millenium, David Frawley’s book Ayurveda and a few PG Wodehouse paperbacks. I have to confess the tally would have been higher had the 2.9 year old decided to keep a tighter control on his bladder (carrying a toddler & running across 10 aisles and returning cost me 30 minutes easy but hey – no hard feelings, A!).

Jethro Tull at the Palace Grounds: Thanks to my dear biwi, I was alerted about Tull’s Dec 2 concert in Bangalore at the Palace Grounds. I couldn’t believe it! If I needed a musical ‘welcome home’, this was it. I’ve been to 4 prior Tull concerts (three in Chicago, Illinois and one in San Jose, California) and I don’t miss an opportunity when Tull comes a touring. My dear biwi (bless her heart again!) was going to hold the home fort on Dec 2 (a weekday evening) while I indulged myself. Found several colleagues who were Tull enthusiasts so eventually we had a gang of five. A dear friend from SF Bay Area had to cancel his business trip due to illness so spot#5 got filled in the eleventh hour by another dear friend (from my Xaviers Bokaro days). Considering that this concert took place 5 days after the Mumbai attacks, we headed to the concert with some mixed feelings but ended up having a rollicking time. Ian Anderson was at his entertaining best. It was not a classic Tull concert – Part 1 was Anoushka Shankar and her troupe, Part 2 was classic Tull, and Part 3 was a fusion with Tull and Anoushka. The encore closer was a very unique and incredible live variation of Locomotive Breath with sitar and bansoori blending in exquisitely. I managed to record a few Qik videos – will post soon.

Judging by the length of the post so far, realized that this is a two-part series so will end the post for now. Continued in 100 Days in Bangalore (Part 2).

The Auto Rickshaw Diaries

Indians have a love-hate relationship with the auto rickshaw. The love comes from the incredible convenience afforded by the 3-legged black-and-yellow creature. In just about any city, one can very easily hail an ‘auto’ (as it is fondly referred by most Indians) and be on your merry way to whichever part of the city you wish to go.

So where does the hate come from? It’s complicated. In several cities, it has become routine for auto drivers to demand a fixed (marked up) fare even though the city regulations expressly forbid it. This is particularly annoying to visitors or residents who are new to the city. Due to the peculiar (or, as some detractors might say ‘insidious’) curvature of the auto’s front, a skilled auto driver (believe me, they all possess this skill!) can weave in and out of the narrowest gaps in traffic. The end result is that they are a major source of traffic problems. Years ago, I used to think they were the sole cause but I now believe that SUVs like Toyota Innova and Mahindra Scorpio are bigger culprits.

My personal tryst with autos began in 1983 when we had moved to Vizag from Bokaro. On some popular routes, the Vizag autos even had a per-passenger fare in order to maximize their fare. In the 80’s, I don’t believe these autos even had meters installed but it might have changed now.

I expect this to be a living breathing post so I will be adding more anecdotes and media pertaining to autos. For starters, check out this short video of a Good Samaritan auto driver helping out another auto whose engine’s potency has been adversely affected. Sunil (our driver) tells me that this towing (really “pushing”) technique is not uncommon.

My friend Soumya (who returned to India from America 8 years ago) sent me the following picture of Vicky Baba’s auto in Bombay. Some sixth sense seems to have alerted him to the fact that someone was taking a picture of his beloved dhanno (name of Basanti’s horse in the timeless Bollywood classic Sholay). Soumya writes an interesting and witty travel blog at http://soumya.org.

Baap Ka Baap (that's Father of Father in Hindi)

Vicky Baba – Baap Ka Baap

Apparently Soumya and I are not alone in our fascination with the Indian auto rickshaw. Priyanka Khot from Delhi waxes eloquent on “the first love of her adult life – my hero – the Auto-Rickshaw in her blog post I Miss Auto-Rickshaws.

Stay tuned since this is merely the beginning of The Auto Rickshaw Diaries.